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Greenville County asks a tough First Amendment question about protests

Anti-abortion demonstrators stand among flags and signs hung by those who protest for greater abortion and reproductive healthcare at the Greenville Women's Clinic. It's one of only three places in South Carolina where abortions are performed.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Anti-abortion demonstrators stand among flags and signs hung by those who protest for greater abortion and reproductive healthcare access at the Greenville Women's Clinic. It's one of only three places in South Carolina where abortions are performed.

Just before the turn from White Horse Road onto Highway 25, a billboard urges passersby to not choose abortion.

It’s a sentinel of sorts; a marker signaling motorists that they are close to both the Greenville Women’s Clinic and the Greenville Women’s Center.

These two businesses sit directly across from each other on a stretch of Grove Road where sidewalks barely exist. Their missions are antithetical.

The Greenville Women’s Clinic provides various services for reproductive and sexual health, including abortion.

The Greenville Women’s Center is a crisis pregnancy center, with a mission to discourage abortion.

Almost every day of the week – weather permitting and not on Sundays when the clinic is closed – demonstrators gather at the gate of the Greenville Women’s Clinic. On one side of the driveway stand those hoping to steer vehicles across the street, to reconsider the decision to terminate a pregnancy. On the opposite side of the driveway stand those in favor of broad access to abortion, birth control, and sexual healthcare.

That paved walkways barely exist here is an important detail. Unless someone is going to either the clinic or the center, there is nowhere to park close to either. To get to where demonstrators gather could mean walking up to four minutes along Grove Road, close to a street on which drivers routinely exceed the posted 35 mph speed limit.

For those who stand at the gates, passing traffic is less of a concern than whoever aligns with the opposing side. Demonstrators who support the clinic’s mission – many identify with a loosely organized group called Clinic Defenders – say they’ve been verbally abused and physically attacked. They frequently post videos of confrontations to social media sites.

Opponents of abortion say they have been aurally assaulted with profanity, loud music, and mocking taunts screamed through bullhorns.

Both sides say they do not feel safe and that they do not believe the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office is doing enough to change such perceptions. Each side accuses the other of trying to bait someone into doing something extreme. Each side says out-of-state and unfamiliar supporters of the opposite cause occasionally show up to threaten, verbally assault, and physically confront them.

Demonstrators on each side say they endure it all because if they don’t, who will?

The question

This is the backdrop for a dilemma Greenville County officials are trying to solve – how to allow citizens to express their First Amendment right to demonstrate, while at the same time providing a layer of protection for those who gather.

County officials like Councilman Rick Bradley, a Republican representing District 26, are concerned that without some measure of regular protection or expanded police authority to deal with unruly demonstrators, someone is going to get hurt outside of the Greenville Women’s Clinic.

At the same time, Bradley and other members of the County Council do not want to even hint at stepping on citizen’s Constitutional rights.

So what is a County Council to do?

“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it,” Bradley says. “I don’t have an answer.”

In recent months, the council has drafted, considered, and walked back an ordinance that would have given sheriff’s deputies broader powers to step in and make arrests. Bradley says public backlash to the ordinance was broad and swift.

So, while the County Council is “back to square one,” Bradley worries that it’s a matter of time before someone gets shoved into Grove Road during an altercation.

“Are we waiting on somebody to get killed?” he asks.

He also asks the residents of Greenville County to offer solutions. He’s heard a lot of complaints about the situation at the Women’s Clinic, but says he’s heard few concrete solutions.

The law

Lt. Scott Matheny sometimes sits in the parking lot of the Greenville Women’s Center and watches over the demonstrations across the street. He’s made arrests and taken video evidence of altercations to county magistrates to ask for arrest warrants (an arrest warrant requires a magistrate’s signature in situations in which an officer does not directly witness a crime).

“Of the 62 cases we've had out there [at the time of our interview in early November],” Matheny says, “we've only been granted six arrest warrants.”

That disparity in cases brought versus arrests made can happen when a magistrate feels there’s not enough evidence to justify an arrest warrant.

“It's called a quantum of proof,” says Seth Stoughtoon, a former Tallahassee, Fla., police officer who now teaches law at the University of South Carolina. “It's a certain amount of evidence or a certain amount of certainty that that person actually committed a crime. The threshold is, would a person of what's called reasonable caution think that there was a fair likelihood that this person had committed a crime?”

If a judge sees evidence and decides that circumstances do not warrant an arrest warrant, one won’t be written, Stoughton says.

The reasons could be plentiful, and they often do factor in the human variable.

“Although, in a very strict legal sense, all we're looking for is, ‘Does the available evidence establish probable cause that this person committed a crime,’ we can't take the human element out of it,” he says. “Sometimes what happens is … the magistrate looks at this shouting match that turns into a shoving match and goes, ‘Well, of course that was going to happen. That was predictable.”

Legal interpretations, however, don’t do much to assuage those who demonstrate outside of the Greenville Women’s Clinic. Kiwani (no other name given) is part of Clinic Defenders. They accuse the Sheriff’s Office of allowing anti-abortion protesters to assault members of their group without consequence.

Judy Masterson, an anti-abortion demonstrator who has come to the clinic’s driveway for years to point people across the street, says she has not been physically assaulted but has seen members of her group driven away by bullhorn noise and says that police have not done anything to stop that either.

Lt. Matheny says he’s given his contact information to several demonstrators on both sides of the clinic’s driveway, and that he has had several conversations about what he can and cannot as a law enforcement officer. He shares Rick Bradley’s frustrations about how to do protect without infringing.

“We want our citizens to be safe,” Matheny says. “We want them to have their protected rights to be able to go out there and voice their opinion. But we cannot draw a tape [line to divide sides] because what if one walks to the other side? If I referee that, then I'm affecting your First Amendment right. Nobody wants to do that.”

Greenville County does have regulations in place concerning picketing. These establish notice requirements for picketers and set out certain safety rules, such as requiring clear bags and prohibiting open flames “in the immediate proximity of pickets.”

But past these basic safety rules, officials continue to struggle to strike the right balance between freedom to demonstrate and the safety of public protection. For now, Matheny says his best advice is for demonstrators to take it upon themselves to just stay away from each other.

“it's hard to explain to them that don't have to be there,” Matheny says. “They choose to be there. So they kind of put theirself in a position and they may have to deal with that because [confrontations are] going to go on.”

The demonstrators, on both sides of the driveway, respond by saying that someone needs to be out there representing them and standing up for those who make their way past the billboard and down Grove Road. And if they don’t do it, the demonstrators ask, who will?

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.